“Bandits don’t need train tickets.”
From South Korean director Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters) comes this rockin’ tribute to American action flicks and Westerns. Expect all manner of gunfights, chases, and explosions, as The Good The Bad The Weird attempts to out-blockbuster the blockbusters.
It’s Manchuria in the 1930s, which closely resembles the Old West, except with more motorcycles. Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), a murderous outlaw dressed all in black, is hired to steal a map from a train. On the same train, clumsy bandit Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song, The Host) gets to the map first, without realizing its importance. He flees across the desert, chased by both Chang-yi and by shotgun-toting bounty hunter Do-won (Woo-sung Jun, The Warrior). The map, it turns out, leads to a buried treasure, one so large that whoever finds it could retire in luxury, or could turn the tide of political strife in the area. Now the chase is on, with all three gunslingers seeking to get a hold of the map and out-shoot one another.
Now this is how you make an action movie. The opening few minutes hit all the right notes. The camera follows behind one character as he runs down the train, from car to car, until he reaches the final car. He kicks open the door and, with guns in each hand, blows away everyone on the other side in seconds. From there, swarms of other outlaws take over the train, with more gunplay, including that action movie thing where someone gets shot and flies across the room as the bullet hits him. Physically impossible? Yes. Incredibly cool? Also yes. At one point, a thug gets blasted to death, and there’s this “first person shooter” shot, where the camera follows the point-of-view of his gun as he fires wildly while falling to the floor. Very Sam Raimi-ish. The train sequence helps establish our three main characters as they get into and out of a lot of narrow misses, something that will happen a lot throughout the rest of the film. Not only is the action nicely staged and well-choreographed, it also moves the story forward with every little twist and turn, just as the best action scenes do.
This is the first of many huge set pieces throughout the movie. The filmmakers spared no expense, as the action is big and elaborate, taking place on gigantic sets or sprawling outdoor locations with dozens if not hundreds of extras. My personal favorite is the extended foot chase/gun battle that occurs at the Ghost Market, a ramshackle town where all the bandits and criminals go to trade their stolen wares. In this scene, there are two levels of action happening simultaneously, one on the rooftops, and the other on street level. It’s set up so that what happens on one level affects what’s happening on the other, and vice versa. It’s here that we get some outrageous stunts, like Do-won swinging around on a town-wide rope and pulley system as if he’s Spider-Man, Tae-goo improvising some hilarious bulletproof armor, and a brief swordfight that is beautiful in its brutality. The final third of the movie gives us a massive chase across the desert, with motorcycles, jeeps, and horses at full gallop. By this point in the story all the characters and the different factions at play have all converged, and are going after the map at once, and yet at no point does it get confusing as to who is where and who is pursuing who. The chase features high-speed stunts, bloody gunplay, and even a few humorous gags to keep the whole thing from feeling repetitive. Film editing students will be studying this sequence for years to come—or at least they should.
You can probably tell already that the movie wears its influences on its sleeve, the most obvious of which is the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood masterpiece, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There are many more, though. Some stunts and action beats bring to mind the Indiana Jones films, and the big chase at the end owes a great deal to the Road Warrior films. More astute viewers will no doubt be able to pick out other similarities to classic action and Western flicks. Does this mean that The Good The Bad The Weird is lazily ripping off better or more famous movies? No, file this one under “loving homage,” alongside Hot Fuzz, Kill Bill and Black Dynamite.
Tae-goo, who I’m assuming is “the weird,” is the character we spend the most time with, and yet he’s also the hardest one to figure out. He spends most of the time as the bumbling thief, on the run from the tough guys. When the chips are down, though, he has no problem pulling out his guns and going all badass on his opponents. He has a couple of “nice guy” moments, such as when befriends some kids or takes care of his friend’s grandma. Later, though, he makes some inexplicable decisions, such as leaving Do-won’s protection to go to an opium den run by revolutionaries. He doesn’t seem to have any interest in either the drugs or the revolution, and he gets in some serious trouble there, so why did he go there to begin with? Still, actor Kang-ho Song plays the character with a goofy enthusiasm, so that the audience wants to see him succeed in finding that treasure, no matter how strange things get for him.
Byung-hun Lee is the king of slick cool as Chang-yi, who I’m assuming is “the bad.” He’s dressed all in black with black gloves and ink-black hair dangling down in front of his face. He’s got the intense stare down pat, and he’s got all the lightning-fast moves. He makes for a threatening, intimidating baddie to pursue our heroes. Woo-sung Jun does his best Clint impersonation as Do-won, who I’m assuming is “the good.” He’s a real man of mystery, as little is revealed about his background. He only opens up emotionally during one scene, a nicely-acted campfire heart-to-heart with Tae-goo, which is cut short before we learn what he really wants. That’s intentional, clearly, so that the character can remain all mysterious. I get that, but he’s still the one with the least amount of development.
Here’s a puzzler: What is the name of this movie? The specific title varies depending on what source you’re reading. Some sites call it The Good, The Bad and the Weird, while others call it The Good, Bad and Weird or just Good, Bad and Weird. The on-screen title is The Good The Bad The Weird with no commas and no “and,” so I’m going with that. Additionally, IMDb tells me the alternate international title is Nom Nom Nom. Ohh-kay…
The picture and audio are stellar. The blue skies, brown deserts, and red gunshot wounds are vivid with detail and clarity. The sound is pure aural excitement. The score, gun blasts, explosions, and roaring motorcycle engines all pound out of the speakers, not just with booming raw sound but also with a nice use of the surrounds, creating an immersive feel. The extras include interviews with actors and the director, three behind-the-scenes featurettes, and footage from the movie’s premiere at Cannes.
While writing this review, I kept accidentally typing “fun” when I meant to type “gun.” That little Freudian slip sums up The Good The Bad The Weird nicely—pure fun. If you like action movies, you simply have to see this.